Three straight sets Jim Courier trailed Michael Chang, and three times Courier clawed back Thursday night to reach the U.S. Open semifinals in one of his gutsiest Grand Slam victories.
Courier, who will play Pete Sampras on Saturday, set the tone in the first set, fighting off four set points in one game, and beat Chang 7-6 (7-5), 7-6 (7-3), 7-5.
Chang, seeded No. 5, led 5-3 in each set but never could put away the No. 14 Courier, who has been playing this whole tournament with the fire he had during his reign as No. 1 several years ago. Ultimately, Chang threw the match away by double-faulting on match point.
If recent history continues, Courier could be the champion this year. For the last four years, whoever has beaten Chang in the Open has gone on to win the title.
Chang lost this match as much as Courier won it. For all of Courier’s aggressive play and sizzling shots in the corners on the key points in the tiebreaks, Chang wasted chances and double-faulted at the wrong times.
“Normally, I’m the one who’s ahead and Michael’s the one coming from behind,” said Courier, who has won four Grand Slam titles but never the U.S. Open. “I let him serve for all three sets, and I broke each time. This is a good match to get through.”
Sampras also charged into the semifinals, closing out game after game with aces that served as exclamation points, from a 128-mph “Hello!” to a 128-mph “See ya later!”
Among his 22 aces through a whipping wind, seven flew past a dizzy Byron Black on the last point of Sampras’ service games, leaving the Zimbabwean with the memory of brute power that lingered in his mind when he stepped up to serve so much less emphatically.
Sampras punctuated the end of his 7-6 (7-3), 6-4, 6-0 romp with an ace that was just as fast as his first serve, showing he was no less tired at the end of the 1-hour, 45-minute semifinal tuneup than he was at the start.
The winner of the Open in 1990 and ‘93, Sampras had only a little trouble in the first set adjusting to Black’s mild-mannered game and two-fisted groundstrokes. In his previous match, Sampras had beaten a much different player in serve-and-volley specialist Todd Martin.
Once Sampras got used to Black’s style and cut down on his own errors, there was nothing to impede his progress one step closer to another Grand Slam title.
“After I won the first two, there was no reason to fool around at this point in the tournament and take things for granted,” Sampras said. “The last set was the best set I played all week. I really started to pick up my serve. My whole game kind of just came behind it.”
Sampras has played all manner of players so far, including clay courter Jaime Yzaga, big Mark Philippoussis, Martin and now Black. It was an assortment of styles that should prepare him well for the final weekend, especially after dropping only one set along the way.
“If I am playing well, I am pretty tough to beat,” Sampras said. “My whole game just revolves around my serve. If I am serving well, that kind of lets the rest of my game be a lot more confident and I can hit my groundies a little cleaner.”
In the women’s competition, Steffi Graf and Monica Seles, playing in what seems to be their own private corner of the game, seem headed for a dream championship match.
The last obstacles to a showdown between the two top players in the game are today’s semifinals, with Graf playing Gabriela Sabatini and Seles playing Conchita Martinez.
Both Sabatini and Martinez bring glowing resumes to their matches. Each has won a Grand Slam title. Each has flourished on hard courts. Neither, though, has the flawlessness of Graf and Seles, who hit harder, return more consistently and run the court better than almost anyone else in the game.
Seles, who has lost just one of 10 career Grand Slam semifinals, was asked if she thought she and Graf were operating on a higher level.
“I don’t know about me,” Seles said, “but Steffi for sure has proven over the years a little bit above physically, mentally and gamewise.”
So those are the problems for Sabatini, who hasn’t beaten Graf since 1992 and Martinez, who has never beaten Seles.
Graf comes in with a 36-1 record for the year. She has won the French Open and Wimbledon, both with Seles still sidelined after her 1993 stabbing in Hamburg.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: THURSDAY’S GLANCE Results: Men’s singles, quarterfinals: No. 2 Pete Sampras and No. 14 Jim Courier advanced. Mixed doubles, final: Meredith McGrath and Matt Lucena defeated No. 3 Gigi Fernandez and Cyril Suk 6-4, 6-4. Today’s women’s semifinals: No. 1 Steffi Graf, Germany, vs. No. 9 Gabriela Sabatini, Argentina. No. 2 Monica Seles), Sarasota, Fla., vs. No. 4 Conchita Martinez, Spain.